Have you ever received a wedding invitation that left you completely clueless about the wedding guest dress code? Between “black-tie optional” and “semi-formal,” the language can be tricky to decipher. “While many couples would like their guests to arrive in black-tie attire, the most common wedding dress code is formal attire,” says Alicia Mae, CEO of the New Jersey-based wedding planning company ILÈ Events.
But while formal attire may be a go-to for many couples, there are plenty of other dress codes that can (and will) appear on a wedding invitation. For example, semi-formal and casual attire are also popular in the wedding space, but they’re a bit more ambiguous than, say, black-tie, and it can be difficult for guests to settle on the level of formality if they don’t ‘t have a general understanding of each look. Luckily, we’re here to help!
If you’re stressed out about style formalities and/or what dress to wear to a wedding, we’ve got you covered with our handy guide. Here are the most common wedding guest dress codes explained, so that you arrive appropriately—and stylishly—dressed for the celebration.
Meet the Experts
Alicia Mae is a New Jersey-based wedding planner and the CEO of ILÈ Events. She has planned over 50 successful weddings and events.
This is the most formal wedding attire possible (think: White House state dinners and royal events). Simply put, women should wear a formal, floor-length evening gown—no exceptions—with jewelry, heels and an elegant clutch. Men are required to wear a tuxedo with tails, a formal white shirt, a vest, a bow tie, white or gray gloves, and formal footwear, such as derby shoes or oxfords.
A step down from white-tie attire, black-tie dress codes usually indicate a formal, evening event. Women should wear a floor-length gown that does not reveal the ankles, in sumptuous fabrics like silk and organza. If the wedding seems a bit less formal, however, a sophisticated cocktail dress might be acceptable, but be sure to consult with the bride first. Plus, it’s okay for women to sport elegant pantsuits if they’re more comfortable with that specific silhouette. As for men, tuxedos are a must. A black bow tie, black vest or cummerbund, and patent leather shoes are also recommended. For summer weddings, a white dinner jacket and black tuxedo trousers are lovely and acceptable choices, to boot.
Formal or Black-Tie Optional
As the wording here suggests, this dress code is slightly less formal than a black-tie wedding. So, a tuxedo isn’t required, but can still be worn if preferred. If opting for a suit, however, a formal dark suit, white shirt, and a conservative tie are acceptable. For women, the outfit choices remain the same: a floor-length gown, a fancy cocktail dress, or a dressy pantsuit. In fact, there isn’t much of a difference between black-tie and black-tie optional, although Mae says it’s more acceptable to wear a dress that shows the ankles (which is not true of a black-tie dress code).
A small step above semi-formal (which we’ll get to next), cocktail attire is an extremely popular choice within the wedding space. It’s a balance between elegant and comfortable and fancy and pared-back. Instead of a floor-length dress, women should opt for a tea-length, knee-length or midi look. And while tuxedos are no longer an option, men are required to wear a suit and tie, regardless of the wedding’s setting.
Semi-Formal or Dressy Casual
Part of dressing for a semi-formal or dressy casual wedding is paying close attention when the ceremony takes place. For evening events, darker, more formal colors are recommended, while light colors and airy fabrics work best for daytime affairs. Women can wear below-the-knee dresses, slip dresses, a dressy skirt and top, or an elegant pantsuit (styled with heels, nice wedges, or formal flats). As for men, opt for a dress shirt and slacks, with the option to wear a tie. “Semiformal gives you flexibility in comfort, but be sure not to dress too casually,” adds Mae.
This dress code is relatively new and will leave many guests scratching their heads. To break it down, festive attire allows you to have fun and play around with your looks. Women are encouraged to wear cocktail party attire featuring bolder colors, playful accessories and unique silhouettes. Men should sport a patterned or textured suit, jazzed up with a bright tie or creative pocket square.
Casual attire will typically indicate that the wedding is being held outdoors or on the beach, meaning the event will be much more laid-back. With that said, jeans, shorts, tank tops, t-shirts, flip-flops and sneakers are absolutely not appropriate unless specified by the couple. Women can wear a summer sundress or a floral patterned mini, with wedges or dressy sandals. Men should choose to wear dress pants or khakis paired with a collared shirt, with the option to also style their look with a tie or sports jacket.
Tropical or Destinations
Since tropical weddings are usually humid and hot affairs, you should be mindful of what you choose to wear and lean into lightweight fabrics and airy silhouettes. What’s more, always err on the dressier side of caution, and if you’re questioning whether your look is appropriate, check with the bride.
As with a casual wedding, women should look for cotton sundresses and nice sandals or wedges. If the wedding is being held outside and the weather is blazing, consider topping the look off with a sun hat. For men’s attire, guayabera shirts are wonderful for the tropics. Known more commonly as “Mexican wedding shirts,” these short-sleeved, button-down tops usually have decorative square pockets and some form of embroidery.
Although linen shirts and pants are also appropriate for a tropical wedding, be cautious in selecting them when you’re traveling. Linen usually wrinkles easily, and there may not be a dry cleaner to press it back out in a more remote destination.
Concept Style or Themed
Concept or themed weddings are exactly what you think: guests should wear attire according to a particular theme dictated by the couple. This is especially popular in the instance of an “all-white formal” dress code, as it’s a stylistic choice that helps the couple create their desired aesthetic. “Another option is inspired looks, like Gatsby or Roc Nation Brunch,” Mae says. For this form of attire, guests can look for inspiration from films or celebrities, depending on the theme.
Come as You Are
According to Mae, some couples may ask their guests to show up how they see fit. And while this dress code allows you to take the lead, it can be a little confusing, so take into account the location of the wedding and the time of day when selecting a look to wear. “An essential tip is to know yourself as a guest,” Mae says. “As the saying goes, ‘If you look great, you feel great!’ Make sure you’re confident in your attire so you don’t feel under or overdressed.”
There’s a range of options when it comes to purchasing a wedding guest dress or outfit, from department stores to online retailers. Top choices include Nordstrom, Macy’s, Dillard’s, and David’s Bridal for more formal attire, or places like Anthropologie, Free People, ASOS, or even Amazon for casual dress codes.
If no dress code is indicated on the wedding invitation or by the couple, use context clues to decide what to wear, such as the formality of the wedding invitation, the venue, the time of day, the season, and the religion of the ceremony. When in doubt, a knee-length cocktail dress for a woman and a dark suit for a man will usually suffice.
First and foremost, don’t wear a white dress (unless the couple requests all-white attire as a stylistic choice). Further, avoid matching the colors worn by the bridal party, wearing anything that is too revealing, sexy, or flashy, or opting for clothes that are too casual, like jeans and sneakers, even at a casual-attire wedding.